The Year Of The Old Folks’ Revolt


Dr. Townsend was now in trouble. But his followers rallied to their leader. Angry letters poured into the White House, and many Townsendites travelled to Washington to provide moral support for the Doctor, some bearing petitions with hundreds of thousands of signatures attesting that members had “donated the money to be used as the leader saw fit.”

Heartened by the evidence of widespread support, Dr. Townsend decided to defy the committee and the New Deal. He lashed out at the hearing, calling it an “inquisition,” and he shrewdly played the part of the innocent victim of slander, while his newspaper headlined MOSES BEFORE PHARAOH. Then, after several days of particularly gruelling questioning, Townsend finally had had enough. Suddenly saying, “Good day, gentlemen,” the Doctor stood up and walked toward the exit. The congressmen were flabbergasted. The frail old physician had trouble pushing through the crowd, but a large, powerful man leaped to his feet, seized Townsend’s arm, and helped him through the throng to the corridor and safety.

The Doctor’s savior was the Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith, an experienced and ambitious leader of mass movements, who had his eye on the O.A.R.P. After several years as a successful minister in Indiana and Louisiana, Smith had joined forces with Senator Huey Long and had become the organizer of the national Share-Our-Wealth movement, the vehicle which Long hoped to ride to the Presidency. Spreading rapidly across the South, the Share-Our-Wealth clubs appealed to poor white farmers and small-town merchants, men who wanted to believe that money and power could be wrenched from the leaders of southern society and the captains of eastern industry and be redistributed. Like Long, Smith was a master of the art of crossroads oratory upon which demagogues in the South had for generations built a following among the povertystricken “redneck” farmers. Shrewdly exploiting the wealth-sharing theme in the depths of the Depression, the minister was making political headway when, in 1935, the assassination of the “Kingfish” robbed him of his chance for glory. The heirs to Long’s Louisiana machine quickly thrust Smith out of his seat of influence, leaving him desperately hungry for power.

Smith’s career to that date had been short but spectacular. The roster of organizations he had flirted with included William Dudley Pelley’s fascistic Silver Shirt Legion of America and Georgia Governor Eugene Talmadge’s violently anti-New Deal Grass Roots Convention. But in the spring of 1936 Smith was without an organization, and he saw Dr. Townsend as the answer to his prayer.

After his rescue in the hearing room, the Doctor took Smith to the Baltimore office of the O.A.R.P., spoke briefly to reporters, and then saw his impromptu press conference taken over by Smith. The following day Smith grandly told newsmen that “we here and now join hands in what shall result in a nation-wide protest against this Communistic dictatorship in Washington.”

Townsend seemed dazzled by the powerful personality of his new ally, and Smith persuaded the Doctor to join him on a speechmaking tour of eastern Pennsylvania. In a dramatic climax to that trip, he took the old man to Valley Forge, where, as he told the press, “the Doctor and I stood under the historic arch and vowed to take over the government.” By this time Townsend was parroting his younger companion: “We are presenting a common front against the dictatorship in Washington.”

Townsend’s other subordinates were greatly disturbed: they felt that the Doctor might soon find himself playing Trilby to Gerald Smith’s Svengali. But even before meeting Smith, Townsend had become convinced that radical action was necessary if his pension scheme was to become a reality. He had told his followers: The only way for us to lick the stuffing out of the old parties is to become militant and go after them hammer and tongs for being totally incompetent … We should begin to talk about the Townsend Party and not wait in the foolish hope that one of the old groups will adopt us. If they do, they will treat us like poor adopted trash. To hell with them. Aware of newspaper reports which indicated that Townsendites were in practical control of at least eight and probably ten states, he began to boast that “we have strength enough to elect a candidate. We have at least thirty million votes.”

Now Smith heightened the old man’s anger and channeled his thinking along more radical lines. And Smith was anxious to play a role in the formation of the new third party. He told an interviewer at this time, “You know what my ambition is? I think chaos is inevitable. I want to get as many people as I can now, so that when chaos comes, I’ll be a leader.”

Townsend had been rather hazy about the political nature of the new Townsend party of which he had talked, and he acquiesced when Smith proclaimed himself “director in charge of political policy.” The Doctor was naïve enough to believe in Smith’s simple but startling arithmetic: six million Townsend Planners plus four million Share-Our-Wealth members equals ten million votes “to start with.” Smith could thus convince the unsophisticated old pension promoter that the Share-Our-Wealth movement was a formidable political force, but he himself knew that this was only a dream. In fact, Gerald L. K. Smith had lost control of the Share-Our-Wealth mailing lists after Long’s assassination and his organization was now defunct. He knew that he and Dr. Townsend would need allies if they were to achieve a political revolution.